What should the FSFE provide (was: supporting our fellowship representative)

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Thu Aug 30 19:56:58 UTC 2018

On Thursday 30. August 2018 09.45.15 Bernhard E. Reiter wrote:
> some of your topics are very interesting, thanks for the feedback!

Thank you for indulging me in this discussion which has probably covered more 
ground already than many previous discussions on some of these topics. My 
apologies if this is a long message.

> == FSFE offerings of personal blogs


> If you are right and there is a lot better coherency and advantages to
> FSFE, we could try to contract a service provider. However how do we get
> better contents on the platform? In the end we cannot really influence the
> contents of blogs, so they could have anything, even something that is bad
> for Free Software. Of course we could keep illegal contents out of the
> blogs, but if we had to come up with a "guidelines what would be
> appropriate" on our blogs to fellows, this would add another layer of
> maintenance and contents "inspection".

I have generally perceived the role of the blogs as providing an insight into 
FSFE activities, an insight into peripheral Free Software activities, and as 
some kind of "conversation starter". However, we don't necessarily see all 
that much of the first category, and an outsider might well conclude that the 
FSFE does all sorts of strange things based on what else is published (such as 
articles in my own blog).

Still, one might hope that the blogs act as that "conversation starter", with 
discussion possibly moving to places like this list, but we don't really see 
much of that, either. So it seems that regardless of the technology employed, 
the FSFE does not necessarily provide a particularly effective forum for 
driving Free Software discussions, development and strategy. At least from the 
perspective of a distant collaborator or outsider.


> > At the same time, services that coordinate activities and perhaps archive
> > some of the technical artefacts would be within the remit of the
> > organisation. In the latter regard, the aim would be to guard against
> > things disappearing from the Web, thinking of all those repository
> > hosting services that no longer exist.
> There are plenty of services to preserve what has been on the web
> (e.g. archive.org). It would be a major undertaking to build something up
> that lasts.

I don't think that the scope of what the FSFE would need is anywhere near to 
what archive.org does, either in their Web archiving role or just for cultural 
artefacts. It just needs to keep its published content in place, which is 
admittedly something that many organisations fail to do as they "refresh" 
their Web sites. (Even supposed custodians of knowledge such as universities 
are surprisingly appalling at this, I find.)

Naturally, the cost of providing services has to be considered, and I agree 
that it isn't the FSFE's purpose to act as a hosting provider at the expense 
of its other activities. But the organisation does need to avoid the trap of 
outsourcing everything because people do then rightly wonder about the value 
provided by the organisation.

I could make observations about other organisations in this domain. For 
instance, the Python Software Foundation chose SourceForge for repository 
hosting back when people were still using CVS/Subversion. It then switched to 
self-hosting using Mercurial, but people started to clamour for Git usage and 
then GitHub usage with all the usual dubious assertions that this entails.

I understand that people don't want to do their own hosting, but at some point 
someone has to do the hosting, and then one needs to consider the burden on 
individuals. It is a bit like discussions about "social media" platforms, but 
I doubt that anyone participating in this list would advocate moving 
everything to Facebook and have fsfe.org redirect to some Facebook URL.

Meanwhile, there are arguably dormant organisations like Qi Hardware which 
still manages to maintain all its Web resources, and it may even be the case 
that most of those resources are still fully usable and not read-only 
archives. Although I acknowledge the challenges of hosting services, sometimes 
I think that people make arguments based on those challenges to pursue another 

This extends to arguments about using more "agile" tools for communication. 
People seem to think that e-mail is too much effort and that forums would be 
better, and so on. But this is often motivated by people wanting to spend as 
little effort as possible on their interactions (hence observations about 
messages sent from people's phones). The result is often low-quality 
"tweeting" of opinions and unsustainable collaboration.

(Given your own considerable experience, I imagine that you have also seen 
situations where advocacy for "low-threshold editing" on things like wiki 
services, to pander to people who want to do "quick edits", ends up with 
incoherent content and spam that is someone else's job to tidy up.)


> > Good luck to anyone trying to find a venue for discussions about general
> > technologies, interoperability, and other matters pertinent to a topic as
> > mundane as groupware!
> You can start a discussion here, but I take it would not really thrive.

Indeed. And we lack mechanisms to take such discussions further. Here, the 
Python community provides another lesson. Up to about ten years ago or so, the 
concept of "special interest groups" was actively cultivated. There were areas 
where it was felt that Python-based solutions could be developed to meet the 
needs of potential users. Some of these evolved a consensus that has led to 
enduring solutions, such as database access interfaces that are still used 

However, another phenomenon emerged which involves people promoting specific 
solutions and denigrating others. Instead of reaching a consensus, the goal of 
some people was to try and dominate others and persuade the audience to pick 
their solution as the winner. (I propose the term "alpha-dogging" for this 
kind of behaviour.)

This usually ends up with complacency and the eventual surprise of discovering 
that competing technologies have surpassed the things that everybody was told 
to use, because "we solved this already" was always the response when people 
questioned the effectiveness of the favoured solutions. So we need to 
cultivate more specialised forums whilst guarding against the tendency to call 
victory on something and to use that to close down discussion.

> Personal background:
> As you may know I have been coordinating a group that constructed a Free
> Software groupware for about 10 years, and I probably would not spend much
> time discussing this here, because I would need to write and amount of text
> filling a book before I got some of my arguments presented in a way that I
> believe that others have a chance to understand them.

I have some familiarity with your own achievements in this and other realms, 
and I obviously appreciate those, particularly as I probably use some of the 
affected software every day. But it is interesting to see how some of the 
software somehow lost momentum and relevance, meaning that people were no 
longer considering Kolab (version 2 and earlier) as a competitive solution.

That isn't a criticism of such software, however, because it clearly kept 
working for those who had deployed it. But for people like myself who like to 
think that we are aware of the state of Free Software solutions in different 
areas, in investigating this mismatch between our perceptions and those of 
people freshly evaluating such solutions (regardless of any biases those 
people might have had) it became apparent that there was a gulf between what 
we wanted to suggest to potential adopters and what was available and 
acceptable to them.

And again, this is where organisations like the FSFE have to be able to 
substantiate and support their advocacy with activities that make their claims 
a reality. Without some kind of mutually-beneficial collaboration in specific 
areas of activity, the usual divide and conquer approach of the proprietary 
software vendors will just continue unchecked. And collaboration has to be 
ongoing, reviewing where the advocacy oversells the reality.


> Given our limited resources, we cannot just start an implementation project
> for some software product. We have noticed this early in FSFE. Our elder
> sister did and successfully reached the initial goals of their GNU
> "project" a few years ago. However this were different times. We found out
> with FSFE that it is much too easy for the opponents of Free Software to
> work against us on a policy level, for which technical hacking cannot
> provide resistance. In order to allow many other people to hack on Free
> Software, we must sure that politics, laws and procurement policies allow
> them to do this. The people and organisations that profit from less
> empowered users have become a much harder political opponent over the last
> years.
> So far I do not think that FSFE's resources are well spend if we would
> directly do development of missing Free Software components.

A huge structural problem that has increasingly been noticed is that no-one 
wants to fund Free Software in general. For the most part, companies will fund 
things to get their products out the door, Free Software or otherwise, and if 
they can avoid paying for "infrastructure components" then they will. Here's a 
recent apt commentary with some strong language about this phenomenon:


Now, I don't necessarily expect the FSFE to directly fund software 
development. Meanwhile, since the FSF wishes to see software development done, 
I would expect it to pay people a decent wage for the work it wishes to see 
done. Unfortunately, there is a culture of people doing work "for exposure" 
which means that people are tempted into doing things for free to get their 
name known.

The consequences are often (1) nothing actually getting done, (2) people 
burning out as they try and fit their volunteer work in around everything else 
in their lives, (3) the perception that Free Software is a product of 
hobbyists who can be paid with pennies. So while I accept that policy 
activities are vital to allow Free Software to be deployed, it also must be 
recognised that without a sustainable development culture there will be no 
Free Software to deploy.

> == license compliance
> > I have some concerns about things like upholding licence compliance. It
> > seems rather strange to me that those of us who care about copyleft
> > licences not being violated by corporations with apparent impunity seem
> > to need to support organisations based in the US to look after these
> > things in Europe.
> While it is fine to support our elder sister in the US of course,
> license compliance is a main topic and activity of FSFE.
> The question is what is the goal of the compliance, we want organisations
> to come to compliance and stay there, because this is the best for
> everyone.

So do other organisations. Unfortunately, there are well-known individuals in 
the Free Software community who disparage some of those organisations, 
arguably in pursuit of their own personal goals.

> For this we offer a large (I think still the largest) community of legal
> and technical people to give advise, specific and general and we also
> follow a number of cases. Just as the FSF (US) we prefer an internal
> approach first, because we assume that a non-compliance may have been an
> oversight and it is better to get people to listen and to understand
> before you go public or legal.
> For some of the activities see:
>   https://fsfe.org/activities/ftf/legal-conference.en.html

My problem with this is that it doesn't seem very transparent. And again, 
there are individuals who have sought to mischaracterise other organisations 
who have tried to discuss general matters of compliance openly. Meanwhile, a 
vacuum has formed around licence compliance that has been exploited by various 

What this communicates to outsiders like myself is that other organisations 
are (1) more likely to offer practical support and advice below the level of 
formal legal consultation (which is, to be honest, where most developers want 
to be operating), (2) more open about the legal and regulatory challenges 
facing Free Software, and (3) more active with regard to upholding Free 
Software licences and defending well-intentioned Free Software usage in 

Again, this may be an unfair impression, but I can only work with the visible 
facts I have to hand. And when an organisation solicits support, it surely 
falls on that organisation to make a clear and convincing case for such 
support. On this particular matter, and in contrast to the outreach done by 
other organisations, I have difficulties seeing such a case.

Once again, my apologies for a long message which still didn't discuss 
everything it needed to. However, I hope it provides another perspective that, 
to some extent, maybe some other people also share.


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